by Monique A. Hitchings, Editor-in-Chief

Gas a Thing of the Past?

August 29th, 2008 mhitchings

Alternative energies, reduction of crude usage (and especially dependence on foreign oil) and a continuous quest for technologies that will reduce greenhouse gas and carbon emissions as well as the environmental footprint are among the most important items on the “to do” list for companies.

Crude prices have dropped more than US$20 in the past month and most experts (while others have differing views) expect it to go down a bit more and level off for awhile; although the new U.S. administration will determine how well these forecasts play out.

The refining industry has suffered with high crude prices and is expected to reduce new refinery production because of the cost, but refiners and their technology providers are conducting research and development to see what products are cleaner and greener and are looking to alternative fuels and energies to help.

Gas prices and the heavy dependence on crude to operate vehicles have led to some interesting developments in the automobile industry and thus a move away from convention fuel. This industry is moving at a fast pace as car manufacturers continue to crank out the latest fuel-efficient, compact vehicles running on various alternative fuels and with alternative technologies.
The international community is coming together (designed by a German, made with American parts and scheduled for assembly in Finland) to produce a vehicle with an advertised capacity to travel 100 miles (on the open road) without recharging.

With an $80,000 price tag and limited initial production to begin next year, the sleek Fisker Karma is touted as environmentally friendly.

But it doesn’t appear to be the family wagon you’d want to jump in with the kids and dog and go on a road trip. It’s a practical vehicle to toodle around town in, but taking it out on a real drive is tough without a practical place to plug in — and 100 miles is not far at all.

How many of you would (given no fund restrictions as the price may knock some people out of the buying arena) purchase this vehicle, and does your lifestyle match the limitations of the Fisker Karma?

Sustainability — Fad or True Trend?

August 26th, 2008 mhitchings
Armistead Booker/flickr
Armistead Booker/flickr
With so much “going green” and hype about sustainability and energy and alternative solutions in the news, on company Web sites and even down to the food we eat, the grocery bags we use and the clothes we wear, there is a faint whisper from time to time (if you close your eyes, hold really still and listen) about the true meaning of sustainability and whether it has the power to stay over time. 

And who’s to blame for the “bad rep” of “going green” or “sustainability?” Is it one of those very important topics that just has an overused name, to the point people forget, or maybe never truly understood, the real meaning or goal of sustainability? Or, in fact, what the term “going green” means?

 Some groups think it’s a phase the world is going through, with everyone jumping on the “let’s go green” bandwagon. Sustainability and “going green” mean a variety of things, depending on which industry, who and what company you ask, but as to the world’s overall attitude, it seems to be a trend that is here to stay - if anything, to get stronger.

According to Pinnacle Worldwide’s Global Sustainability Strategy Results, “about half of respondents (46%) perceived media coverage of environmental topics as accurate about half the time, with 28% seeing reporting as ‘mostly accurate.’ However, 22% rated media as ‘mostly inaccurate’ or ‘extremely inaccurate.’ When asked how they knew the media was accurate or not, ‘personal opinion about environmental and natural science topics’ was the leading basis for perceptions of media accuracy. 

However, one of the goals respondents in this report cited is education. “Improving perceptions of the company was rated as more important than increasing revenue via sustainability programs.  However, revenue was still seen as ’somewhat important,’” according to the report.

These aspects, while not overly surprising, demonstrate, like most high-profile topics in the world, the power of the press and how much influence the media has on public knowledge and perception. We are stewards of the truth, or thoroughness of cutting through the red tape and getting to the bottom of even the most intricate, confusing and layered of topics. 

Interestingly, 6.7% of the respondents said they believe sustainability is a fad and 4.4% they do not see a way to reduce their environmental impact. Clearly more education is needed among these groups.

For the energy industry, one aspect of “going green” is with investments and clean energy.

Can the refining industry go green? Some say sure, others are doubtful.

The transportation industry already is above many others with alternative fuels such as biodiesel and butanol and vehicles that are more fuel efficient.

I could go on and on but then I’d probably lose your interest and not get my magazine articles written for the next issue … but you get the point. Sustainability and the transition toward “greener” business practices, products and ways of thinking are here to stay.

Is Nuclear Energy the Future?

August 26th, 2008 mhitchings

With the energy topic prominent in the news, on the forefront of the upcoming U.S. elections and at the top of the global list of sustainability needs, governments, industries and companies are looking toward alternative fuels and unconventional energies to help reduce the environmental footprint, lower emissions and bring the global warming threat to a more manageable level.

The controversial topic of nuclear energy as a power source isn’t getting a lot of attention — as there are an array of seemingly more viable renewables involved in the “alternatives” debate — but it is getting some. Scholars, industry experts, political leaders, economists and a variety of other analysts are all reviewing, debating, discussing and weighing pros and cons. Where does it stand in the line up of alternatives (and even with conventional fossil fuels) — behind or in front of ethanol, biofuels, electric hybrids, gas power, hydrogen, waste … the list is nearly exhaustive.
Some sit on the negative side of the equation: thinking too much energy is required to start up plants already in existence, and some think it’s too expensive and will take too long to build and get new plants operational.

They’ll Make Fuel from Anything

August 22nd, 2008 mhitchings
I read an article recently that scientists are close to being able to make fuel from bacteria - a technology that has been in the news for the past couple of months.  Not  surprising, as microorganisms produce gases that turn waste into energy through a metabolic chemical reaction process on the bacteria’s part.

Not only is the waste we produce being used to generate fuel and energy, but now tiny microorganisms are jumping on the energy-efficient bandwagon as well. We are a cyclical world — we use materials, an action that generates waste, which can be used to produce fuel and energy, thus producing more trash to recycle into more renewables. And now, the organisms that help us sustain life in other ways, are transforming nutrients and energy into waste for our fuel use. They’ve been doing this for centuries, but as energy efficiency, renewables and alternative energies are taking a more prominent position in the news in categories including technologies and public policy with the upcoming U.S. presidential elections, creative ways of generating power, fuel and energy are being sought.

Generating renewables from trash is like Native Americans using buffalo in early days — nothing went to waste (bones for weapons, meat for food, hide for clothing and shelter). We use the product that created the trash and then use the microorganisms that result from the decomposing trash to help produce power, for example.

It’s great that scientists, environmentalists and the like are conscious of global warming and the need to make the most of our resources, but is it efficient? Can enough energy be produced from the bacteria to make the process worthwhile and have a noticeable impact on energy production and consumption?

The answer appears to be maybe?

“By working together the two types of bacteria can produce much more hydrogen than either could alone,” said Dr Mark Redwood in the Science Daily article about bacteria producing power. “A significant challenge for the development of this process to a productive scale is to design a kind of photobioreactor that is cheap to construct and able to harvest light from a large area. A second issue is connecting the process with a reliable supply of sugary feedstock.”

It may appear “out there” to some, but some research organizations say the application is closer than we may think.

Weigh in — is this far-fetched science fiction, or plausible science?


Republic of Indonesia Day–New Holiday for Houston, Texas?

August 19th, 2008 mhitchings
During Indonesia's recent celebration of independence at the Houston Consulate General of the Republic of Indonesia, dancers perform the "fan" dance native to Sulawesi. (Photo by Monique A. Hitchings)
During Indonesia's recent celebration of independence at the Houston Consulate General of the Republic of Indonesia, dancers perform the "fan" dance native to Sulawesi. (Photo by Monique A. Hitchings)
Amid native dances from the islands of Java and Sulawesi, eating, drinking and delegate presentations, two nations came together tonight — one in celebration of the other’s independence. Although not occurring on the official anniversary date (but close enough) dignitaries from Houston City Council representing Mayor Bill White’s office, and the state of Texas (with U.S. Congressional representation) gathered at Houston’s Consulate General of the Republic of Indonesia amid country officials, neighboring consulate members and invitation-only attendees to help celebrate 63 years of freedom.

On August 17, 1945, Indonesia, a country comprised of more than 17,000 islands and today more than 240 million people, declared independence from The Netherlands after nearly 130 years.

The United States and Indonesia have a close relationship, one Consul General Kria F. Pasaribu tonight called that of friendship, noting a mutual respect and recognition of freedom. He talked about the growing economy and population as well as the positive political influences in the nation.

The country is unified through diversity — a multitude of people with various cultures, languages, beliefs and backgrounds that stand together to celebrate the one thing each and every person has in common: independence; a philosophy very much the same as that of those in the United States.

Opening ceremonies included welcoming remarks from U.S. Congressman Al Green and representatives from the offices of White and U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, each of whom concluded their accolades of the country’s accomplishments with Congressional certificate presentations. Houston City Councilwoman Jolanda Jones, speaking on behalf of White’s office, noted the official declaration that Aug. 17 is now known citywide as Republic of Indonesia Day — I wonder if this will become a city holiday where offices, schools and and federal businesses shut down in recognition.

So, congratulations, Indonesia, and happy Independence Day.

Semoga Indonesia akan terus terusan lebih kehadapan lagi

Alternative Vehicles — Necessary Evil?

August 17th, 2008 mhitchings
Old Engraving depicting the 1771 crash of Nicolas Joseph Cugnot's steam-powered car into a stone wall (//
Old Engraving depicting the 1771 crash of Nicolas Joseph Cugnot's steam-powered car into a stone wall (//
Alternative vehicles, like alternative energy, are the way of the future — the move from traditional fueled vehicles such as diesel and gasoline, on which we’ve depended for years, to more environmentally friendly modes of transportation and fueling is inevitable, and is already being implemented. Popular alternative auto technologies on the road include hybrids, smart cars and plug-in vehicles.

The hardest part of the transition is not educating the public about the need to embrace the new world of sustainability - understanding the need to reduce carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions (we all get it) - it is breaking people of their silo-minded habits.

Everyone loves their car — how many times have you been stuck in traffic, creeping along, hearing vehicles puttering along, seeing them emit plumes of black smoke from tailpipes or smoke stacks, or seeing single-person after single-person vehicle?

Car-pooling is another initiative some have embraced since fuel prices began to skyrocket. However, we tend to be creatures of habit, familiarity and fans of comfort. A couple of people in my office car-pooled for awhile, but when fluctuating schedules required coming in early or staying late due to new project initiatives, sharing a car (and the costs) quickly became too much hassle.

What’s the hype about?

An interesting event, Altermobile Europe 2008, is scheduled to take place in Munich in November to help educate attendees (and you can bet we will be in attendance to update discussions along the way) about the importance - and dispel some rumors - of alternative vehicles and fuels and show they really are the wave of the future.

Manufacturers, journalists, think tanks, experts, professors and everyone in between as it relates to the auto industry will be on hand to discuss business models, fuel efficiency, sustainability initiatives and just learn about why it is so important we broaden our mind, think outside the box and really do our part to help save the environment and make the world a better place in which to live.

From the late-1700 steam-powered vehicle to gas to hybrids and electrics, the auto industry has continually been working to make better, more efficient transportation.

How Do You Compare with Your Energy Neighbor?

August 15th, 2008 mhitchings

The list of what is environmentally challenging and not quite right with our world is a little daunting and becoming more so by the minute if you really stop to take stock.

 Sustainability is a tough word to define; it means different things to different people, including those within the same industry and indeed the same company. For Petrobras America’s President Alberto Guimaraes, “it would be a responsibility in all relationships. … A company has to be able to grant a conscientious growth, to deliver to its customers what they expect in any environment, in any type of economy, in any type of a standard of life. … It is very much up to the company to be technologically advanced, to develop a culture of technology.” 

For years we as a global community have worked, to a certain extent, somewhat independently from our neighbors in the environmental arena — not really cognizant that emissions in Asia’s air cause weather changes and affect other countries by way of wind currents. We haven’t realized the need for industrialization as a means to drive the economy and thus workforce has been pumping (albeit relatively small amounts over long periods of time) noxious emissions into systems of the very people on whom we depend to keep the economy and workforce moving forward. 

With the approaching change in the U.S. Administration, the world is perhaps more focused than ever on the growing list of energy related buzzwords and is itching to see the new ideas, and, inevitably, challenges, a change in scenery will bring to the energy space. How will it all play out?

Going Green

The word is out there — we are “going green.” More and more companies are rallying behind the items on the ever-growing “what’s-environmentally-wrong-with-the-world-and-how-can-we-make-a-difference” list.

Shell’s David Sexton has noted his company believes its greatest priorities are ” helping to meet future global demand for energy and playing a full roll in tackling carbon emissions. There is no doubt that by the year 2100, the world will have a radically different energy mix. Our charge is building the bridge from where we are now to where we want to be at the turn of the next century.”

For Thomas O’Malley, Petroplus chairman, ethanol is a thorn in the nation’s political side. “Ethanol is one of the clear culprits” for the current U.S. economic problems, and it is doing little to help the environment and global fuel supply, he has said. However, It is not all doom and gloom for the U.S. ethanol market as he’s noted the European biodiesel policies are causing similar problems.

 BP, also a player in the alternative energy arena, believes demand will increase and that it is the future to which the global community needs to work.

“Demand for alternatives will continue to climb,” Sarah Howell, BP environmental and corporate communications director, has said. “BP believes that the U.S. market will continue to grow as the public continues to demand cleaner and reliable sources of power.”

 Do you have a model or belief about what to do to reduce our environmental footprint before it gets too deep? What corporate, social and individual responsibility do we have and how can we work together?

Where do you fit in this mix?


People Shortage No. 1 Concern

August 14th, 2008 mhitchings
Recruiting at the International Petroleum Technology Conference, 4 – 6 December 2007, Dubai, UAE (//
Recruiting at the International Petroleum Technology Conference, 4 – 6 December 2007, Dubai, UAE (//
For years there’s been talk about “the Great Crew Change” in the energy sector, with a larger number of experienced, well-seasoned veterans leaving the industry than fresh, new faces coming in. Nearly every organization and company has a training and retention program to some degree, but how effective is it, is it strong enough to stave off the gaping chasm the myriad of retirees is leaving, and what opportunities are available?

FUEL magazine conducted a poll asking visitors the biggest challenge they face today in their sector of the energy business. The largest percentage (33%) responded “people shortage,” with “cost of resources/materials” coming in at a close second (30%). The least important factor affecting respondent’s business operations is the “distance among peers and customers,” (4%) which is indicative of increased technologies (Internet, e-mail, Web casts, video conferencing, BlackBerrys) and reduced “internationalism” that allow us to do our jobs from any corner of the globe (and beyond, in some cases). Ranking in the middle of the poll were public policy (19%) with public perception (15%) a little less of a challenge. With so many regulations, various forms of government, different environmental and permit-related needs, conducting business internationally can indeed get bureaucratic. FUEL magazine’s September cover story will bring in-depth coverage to the challenges and solutions of conducting overseas business in the energy sector and what some organizations are doing to help ease some of the red tape.

What about you? What challenges do you face in the workforce with your company, how do you feel they can be addressed?

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth is, and Everyone Wins

August 13th, 2008 mhitchings

If you were confident enough to put your money where your mouth is that crude prices were about to reach their peak, you were among good company with industry representatives who debated the merit of prices reaching US$150 per bbl. The topic created buzz about how high prices would climb if they continued, or, more likely, how long it would take to fall to $115 per bbl. Indeed, prices have dropped nearly $30 during the past month from about $145 to $117 and are on a road - on average - to further decline as the Energy Information Administration estimates lower prices based on reduced demand. For in-depth analysis, read FUEL magazine’s September article about the supply and demand of crude oil, what caused the significant price plummet, and what these changes mean for the short and longer term.

CO2 Emissions Per Capita
CO2 Emissions Per Capita
So that seems to be one stressing element of our lives we can eliminate for the time-being, but we’re nowhere near out of the woods with the distressing state of the energy industry and its ties to climate change, food prices and the environment, just to name a few issues that keep some people up at night. These problems continue to be at the forefront of these same people’s mind, not surprisingly. But what is surprising is the thousands of scientists, professionals, educators and students that will gather for a first-time meeting Oct. 5-9 in my backyard of Houston, Texas, to discuss the latest research and trends (10 plenary sessions in all) in energy, water resources, climate change, agriculture, science education, earth sciences and related disciplines.

Why is this a first-time event and what is the significance of the timing? Seems this would be a regular event, like the multiple-time-a-year meetings the United Nations hosts to stay on the cusp of global environmental issues. For challenges that impact the world, seems a bit slow on the uptake to round up these industry participants.

This first joint annual meeting is a collaboration that showcases the sciences of The Geological Society of America, American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, Soil Science Society of America, and Gulf Coast Association of Geological Societies, all of which are sponsoring organizations. Also participating is the Gulf Coast Section of the Society for Sedimentary Geology and hosted by the Houston Geological Society.

You can bet we’ll keep an eye on upcoming event developments and certainly be on site to see how this unfolds.